at last laid bare

“Hey, Boma,” says Daisuke.

He turns his face so that his cheek is pressed against the wall instead of his nose. He can vaguely see the reflection of them in the metal: Boma’s dark head bent so close to his own. Just a few short steps away, the rest of Kabuki Road is abuzz with life, and the noise itself is like a cocoon, an extra layer of insulation between them and someone else. Boma’s timing has never been the best — he picks and chooses when to approach Daisuke without any sort of discernible pattern, sulking deliberately in the shadows until he’s noticed and called out. Continue reading

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but here’s the catch

There is a game Seimei enjoys very much; shhh, you mustn’t tell Ritsuka. It’d be game over if Ritsuka found out, and Seimei hates losing.

The rules are very simple: when Ritsuka is asleep, do not wake him. Continue reading

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those things unasked

She wears mostly black in this country, like she does in every other — black jeans and a low-cut black tanktop and a light black jacket over that — all provided by President Daidouji, of course: after she practically adopts the princess, she takes the rest of them under her wing as well. New clothes are provided for all of them, and if the ones for the princess are better-made and higher-quality, none of them comment. The idiot mage, in fact, absolutely dotes on her, worse than he did even back in Outo — he pets her and compliments her and makes grinning sidelong comments to the brat, which makes both him and the princess turn bright red and sputter and never quite look the other in the face. They’re so young that sometimes it makes Kurogane tired to be around them; she was that young, once upon a time, though never quite so in love: she’s never entertained hopes that the moon would ever be in her reach. Continue reading

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a nameless first meeting

He is eight years old the first time they meet: the day of the harvest festival, when people from as far away as the capital come to Suwa to buy and sell and trade, and the entire province is turned into an extravaganza of lights and music and celebration. Despite having brand-new clothes for the occasion (stiff and uncomfortable for not being properly broken-in yet) and a stern warning from his mother to keep his face clean, he sneaks off soon after breakfast, avoiding the servants who rush here and there and shout passed-along orders at each other. His father might be the lord of the area, but his mother commands her people with practical efficiency that would impress any general. Continue reading

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various genderswitch

Firefly (Mal)

It ain’t that he’s got a problem with women in charge — his momma’d whup him good if she ever heard him saying gorram idjit things like that — it’s just that the woman who’s tryin’ to bargain his services right now — in front of his current employers, no less — puts him in the mind of a coyote, sharp-eyed and this side of too-lean. Like as not she’d seen hard times since the war, and that was liable to make anyone mean, man or woman. The black ain’t a kind place for anyone, and a woman’s twice as likely than a man to gut you goin’ down — no hard feelin’s, darlin’, just how business is. You gotta be able to stand on the weight of your own reputation, and not everyone’s hand the raisin’ Jayne’s had at his momma’s knee. He’s not plannin’ on gettin’ himself shived because on account of anyone.

Still, she’s got a mighty temptin’ offer and she looks him straight in the eye, easy as you please. She ain’t the sort who’s ever gonna back down, this Mal Reynolds, and that’s more than some of the chickenshit he’s worked for previous. If her pay’s good as her word, Jayne reckons he’s got the time to stick around. Continue reading

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For Want of Kindness

“You are your father’s child,” her mother sighs, and touches her face with soft fingertips. “Don’t lose that kindness, my darling, and your heart will be as strong as your arm.”

+++

Kurogane’s first kiss is when she’s fifteen and two years in Tomoyo’s service. It comes from the princess herself, when it’s just the two of them alone in her chambers: the princess embroidering a length of green silk to eventually be turned into an obi, and Kurogane reading — because Amaterasu insisted on her continuing proper education — while trying not to feel rather desperately out of place. There have been a few who’ve muttered jealously of the special affection and attention that Tsukuyomi lavished upon Suwa’s displaced heir, but Tomoyo pays them no heed, and Kurogane does her best to follow that unruffled example. She’s flattered, of course, and honored to the point of embarrassment, which she disguises with gruff clipped speech and narrow-eyed glares.

Still, there is no way to gracefully decline a request from one’s princess, especially when one doesn’t particularly want to, because Tomoyo is a soothing quiet presence and sometimes she sings as she works: things Kurogane’s mother sang to her, when she was still young enough for lullabies.

And then: “Kurogane,” says Tomoyo.

She looks up and the question dies unvoiced as Tomoyo leans forward. The princess’ lips are absurdly soft, and Kurogane is half-tempted to recite the poetry she’s just been reading. Up close, the princess smells like lavender and incense, and the curve of her mouth is a warm smile that lingers even when she pulls back.

Kurogane can’t do anything but stare, though her tongue swipes out automatically across her bottom lip. There is no lingering taste there like the romances like to claim, but her entire mouth tingles from remembered pressure. “P– Princess,” she manages, and her voice has gone low and husky in her surprise. “What–”

Tomoyo beams. “I wanted to,” she says. Her dark eyes are gentle, as is her hand when she touches Kurogane’s cheek. Her little fingers were soft; even the calluses were smooth. “Because you were there, and because I am fond of you, Kurogane.”

It isn’t a confession: the one woman who inherits Tsukuyomi’s name takes no permanent lover in her life; though she may spend time as she wishes, her duty must first and foremost be to the barrier she maintains around Japan. Kurogane knows this and still flushes like an idiot girl at the warmth in her princess’ eyes. It’s embarrassing.

“I,” she starts to say, then falls silent. Tomoyo continues to smile steadily at her, so she takes a breath and leans forward herself this time. The princess meets her halfway, still smiling.

Kurogane’s second kiss is soft as the first and becomes a memory she carries fondly for the rest of her life.

+++

It goes without saying that she does not like the mage.

The princess is not her princess, but still one nevertheless, and thus will be protected. The kid’s not bad — a bit rough around the edges, but he’s got a fighter’s spirit and the intelligence to recognize and respect his betters and learn from them.

The mage, on the other hand, is like every single woman that has annoyed Kurogane in life: the soft-bodied fluttering butterflies that simpered in Amaterasu’s presence and fawned upon Tomoyo, the women who laughed too shrill and too bright, like it could hide the bruised shadows in their eyes — the women who would not accept the responsibility to change their own fate. She smiles like it means nothing and forgets Kurogane’s name when she remembers them for everyone else, even that damn white porkbun. It doesn’t take a genius to see that the mage is hiding a secret that’s gearing up to explode, but the princess is too weak and tired to notice anything but her own exhaustion and the kid is (rightfully) fixated only on her.

Which means it’s up to Kurogane to keep tabs on the idiot mage; for now they’re stuck together, and she’s not about to let a moron ruin her chances of going home.

That doesn’t mean she likes it, though; it rankles to be around the mage when the idiot won’t even lift a hand to defend herself. Even if Tomoyo was not half the warrior her sister-empress was, she knew — and more to the point, would use — enough magic to defend herself nicely. The mage doesn’t even pretend to try.

Instead she plays the part of a fool, spoiling the princess shamelessly and teasing the kid for his devotion — never unkindly, though he sputters and blushes red anyway — and indulging the white porkbun’s attempts to be cute.

And she flirts shamelessly with Kurogane with her lashes coyly lowered and her lower lip caught between her teeth, with cuddling Kurogane’s arm between her small breasts and leaning in so close that her breath feathers against Kurogane’s ear. She’s far bolder than the women of court, but always backs off just shy of actually promising anything. Only she knows the steps to her dance, and Kurogane has no patience for it. One of these days, she thinks, she’ll flirt right back, because nothing will get the damn mage off her back faster.

For now, however, it keeps the idiot close, and the last thing Kurogane wants is to have to chase down the moron if she decides to go off and sulk.

Soon, though. Any day now.

+++

They arrive in a world where the princess’s feather is kept at a shrine and worshiped as a holy object. The High Priest is a broad-shouldered black-haired man whose smile never falters as he listens to their story and says that, if the princess is really their world’s goddess come to reclaim her feather, she must prove it. Just a few simple tests, he promises, and has a young acolyte lead them to their rooms. The mage is conspicuously silent the entire time, white as a ghost and not looking anyone in the eye as they walk down the hallway. The princess is given her own room, but both she and the kid look so piteous that he’s allowed to bed down on her floor, just to stay close. Kurogane and the mage are placed in the room next door, and as soon as the door closes, she turns on her idiot companion.

“That man,” she says. “His name was also ‘Asura.'”

The mage laughs; it’s a hollow rattling sound. “Ah,” she says. “How observant, Kuro-chuu. You noticed.”

“It’s not the same ‘him,’ though, is it?” Kurogane narrows her eyes. “The same soul, but not the one you’re running away from.”

Instead of answering, the mage slinks towards her, reaching up to slide skinny arms around her neck. She leans in close, fitting her narrow body against Kurogane’s own and lets her lashes flutter against Kurogane’s jaw. She smells nothing like flowers, just of wind and the burn of ozone. “Hey, Kuro-sama,” she breathes. “If I asked her to protect me, would she say yes? She’s such a devoted bodyguard, I’d have nothing to worry about if she were to watch over me …”

It’s instinct that makes her lash out; in a single sharp twist she shakes the mage off and turns. “Don’t be stupid,” she says. “You can take care of yourself. Try doing that instead of relying on others.”

The mage hits the wall with one thin shoulder and doesn’t move. Her head falls forward and she laughs again. “Ah,” she says. “Ahaha, that’s right, what was I thinking. How rude of me to ask.” She lifts her head and her smile is wide and brilliant and absolutely false. “I’m sorry, Kuro-sama.”

Kurogane glares, her hand drift to her waist and the sword that’s no longer there. Instead of trying again, though, the mage drifts away from the wall, shedding her long coat into a pile on the floor. She’s still wearing the clothes of the last world underneath — a long black dress that shows off her modest figure — and this she doesn’t bother taking off before she drops onto one of the narrow cots, face-down as always. Kurogane stares at her for nearly twenty minutes before she’s certain the mage is asleep, and only then does she move, stepping out of her boots and setting aside her own coat before she lies down, facing the other woman.

A thin shaft of moonlight comes in through the room’s single high-set window. It catches in the mage’s pale hair and makes it glow silver. Kurogane knows from experience that it’s soft as rabbit-fur, though the tips are rough with split ends. She misses Tomoyo suddenly and acutely, a thought that follows her down into sleep.

When she wakes the next morning, the mage is gone.

It isn’t until the princess passes her tests — with flying colors, really, carried by her inherent good luck — and receives the feather from the smiling High Priest that the mage reappears, strolling out from behind one of the temple’s marble pillars, as though she’d been there all along. She congratulates the princess on her win and neatly avoids the question of where she’d gone, and doesn’t look the High Priest in the eye; for just a moment she glances at Kurogane, and her lips quirk in an ironic biting little smile. She nods, so faintly that anyone else looking might have missed it, and then the transport spell opens around them like an unfolding flower and she’s gone from sight.

+++

Be kind, her mother had always whispered, before and after her illness took hold. Be kind, my darling, always be kind and especially to other women; there are those who won’t recognize it for what it is, and they’re the ones who need it most of all.

+++

They come to a world of perpetual winter, which is nearing the end of its lifespan. The mage theorizes that it’s only the presence of the princess’s feather that keeps it alive, but a blizzard keeps them confined to a building that must have been an inn, once upon a time: there is a bar in the main room and a number of bedrooms on the second floor. Neither Kurogane nor the kid trust the food still in the larders, and the white porkbun takes it upon itself to contact the Witch. They end up trading a silver bracelet set with an emerald (one of the princess’s wins from a poker game in the previous world) and the ruby stud in the mage’s right ear for a hot meal from the Witch’s assistant. Kurogane takes apart one of the rickety chairs for kindling and they light a fire, setting up their bedding close to that tiny source of warmth; the princess drops off almost as once, cuddling the white porkbun in her arms, and the kid lasts only a little longer before his head sinks to his chest and his breathing evens out.

Almost at once, the mage produces a small bright blue bottle from her coat pockets and uncorks it; even at a distance, it smells potently alcoholic. She sips it gingerly and makes a face before she holds it out to Kurogane in offering.

“When it’s this cold,” she says, and it sounds almost like apology, “it’s good to warm up from the inside.”

Kurogane eyes her suspiciously, but her smile is more wry than anything else; the firelight does nothing to hide the shadows in her eyes. It is possibly the most honest expression she’s had in their long time traveling together.

She drinks. It burns the whole way down.

When she gives the bottle back, the mage is closer than before. They’re not quite touching — there’s about a handspan of space between their knees — but she’s there in Kurogane’s sphere of awareness, a cool muffled presence that’s white as the snow outside. If she looks, she can see the other’s bowed head and slumped shoulders. If she looks away and then back again, the mage is closer still, and the smell of alcohol is heavy in the air.

“Oi,” Kurogane says, with her voice pitched low to prevent waking the kid or the princess. She knows damn well the mage is watching her, somewhere behind that tangled shaggy mess of hair. “Did you want something?”

The mage laughs. It verges on unkind. She tilts her head and shakes her hair from her eyes, staring blank and unblinking into the fire. “That’s the question, isn’t it.” She shakes the bottle, then takes a heavy drink. “Ahh, Kuro-tan, you should know better than to ask.”

“I did anyway,” Kurogane says, and snatches the bottle before the mage can drink again. “You’ve been staring at me all night.”

“Have I?” The mage blinks and tries her most innocent wide-eyed look. She presses a finger to her lower lip, as though she doesn’t know how damn easy it is to see through her facade. “Well, Kuro-ko is quite pretty, after all. She’s tall and strong and looks good whether she’s wearing a dress or a suit.” A smile twists her mouth, unkind in comparison to her previous expression. “She’s brave and she’s kind, and she takes care of the children so well in spite of being so growly. And with all this snow–” she lifts a hand and waves it languidly, “she is definitely the most interesting thing to look at. Of course, it’s always interesting with the faces Kuro-chama makes, but …”

Her knee brushes against Kurogane’s own now; through the layers of clothes they’re both wearing, her flesh is cold. Kurogane narrows her eyes, but doesn’t immediately pull back — and that, she sees, surprises the mage as long seconds tick past.

“What about you?” the mage asks. Her initial hard smile has faded into a bare twitch of her mouth and her knee trembles like she might break apart. “You’re asking something like this, so is there something you want in return?”

Kurogane looks. It’s not the first time: the idiot is exotic enough to someone from a world of black-haired dark-eyed people, and has a fineboned delicate face that straddles the borderland of androgyny, and she is nearly as flat-chested as the sleeping princess. She’s all angles and edges that would be better-suited for a man, but she’s flashy enough to draw the eye, even in a white world where she could easily blend in.

“Kuro-ro? Is there something on my face?”

“Idiot,” she says. “Don’t–”

“Don’t?”

She reaches out and closes her hand in the loose collar of the idiot mage’s shirt. With a twist of her wrist, she tugs the other woman forward, ignoring the pale hands that rise up and bat at her arm — other than that small token protest, the mage doesn’t fight at all, though her body goes stiff and trembling. Her eyes open wide, pupils dilating to pinpoints, and her breath comes rapid and harsh against Kurogane’s cheek. Kurogane brings her other hand up and lets it slide into the mage’s hair, soft and damp from melted snow, and uses that grip to hold her still.

(Be kind, my darling, her mother had whispered, be kind.)

“You piss me off,” she says, and kisses the other woman.

It’s nothing like the quiet gentle exchange with Tomoyo a lifetime ago, or any of the others who followed, men and women alike. The mage’s mouth falls open almost at once and she presses desperately close, but her kiss is passive — she makes a noise once when Kurogane’s teeth score her lower lip, and there are cold fingers which flutter lightly against Kurogane’s own, and does nothing else. Kurogane tastes blood and pulls back, and it isn’t just the reflected firelight that’s turned the mage’s face pink.

“Oh,” the idiot whispers. She looks more like she’s been stabbed than kissed. Under Kurogane’s knuckles, her heart is pounding so hard it seems like it must be painful. There is blood on her mouth that matches the taste on Kurogane’s tongue. “Oh–”

“I keep telling you,” Kurogane growls. “Make up your own damn mind about what you want. Moron.”

“Kuro-sama–”

“Either live in the past and die,” Kurogane growls, and lets go with a shove, “or look to the future and live.”

+++

Kurogane is no stranger to blood or death. She’s killed over a thousand in her years of service to Tomoyo; it’s the reason she’s on this stupid journey in the first place. She’s had battles where her hair dried stiff and red and she was banished to the bathhouse for the entire day before Tomoyo would allow her back into the palace. Never once did her arm falter: she did whatever necessary to protect her princess, her empress, and herself.

But she wraps the bandage as tightly as she can around the mage’s idiot head and sees her fingers shaking and she thinks of how her mother apologized for her failures before she died.

+++

Giving blood should hurt more than it does, she thinks: she’s cutting her own flesh, or else she’s offering an injury for the mage to lick, and it should hurt. It should sting to some small degree, but all she feels, watching that bowed pale-gold head, is the dull anger of disappointment.

“Kurogane,” the mage says, lips moving against her skin. Her voice is a low throaty rasp that turns Kurogane’s name into something that isn’t quite an insult. “You should try to sleep instead of brooding.” She leans back and runs her thumb over her mouth, gathering blood before she licks the digit clean. “It’s not healthy to stay up and worry about things.”

Her hand flashes out before she can stop herself; her hand fists in the mage’s shirt and pulls up. There’s a fleeting sense of deja-vu, but it dissipates when the mage moves of her own accord, pressing against Kurogane’s hand and draping herself across Kurogane’s lap like some oversized sleepy-eyed cat. A cold face presses to Kurogane’s throat, and a moment later there are fangs, delicately pressed to her jugular.

“Kurogane,” she whispers. “Would this make you feel better? You’re the great and noble warrior who saved me from myself. Such kindness should be rewarded — I’ll give it to you, if you want. I’ve seen you looking, I know you’re curious …”

A cold palm ghosts up Kurogane’s arm, tracing from bleeding wrist to bare shoulder before smoothing inward, until it rests across the slope of one breast. There are still fangs against her skin when the mage continues: “If you want, I’ll be–”

Kurogane shifts her grip until her fist is a flat palm, and shoves. The mage doesn’t bother to try and break her fall; she tumbles to the ground and lands in a splayed pile of limbs. The scrap of ribbon tying back her hair has come loose, and so the mess of it flutters around her thin face, hiding most of it. Kurogane gets to her feet and stands over the fallen woman.

“If you think that is what I want,” she growls, “you’re an even bigger idiot than I thought.”

She doesn’t wait to hear the answer before she stalks away, towards the room she’s splitting with the kid.

When she sleeps that night, she dreams of a world in its death-rattle winter, of startled blue eyes and the taste of alcohol and blood on her tongue.

+++

Just before they come to Infinity is a world ruled by women; the High Queen looks at the princess’s pale composed face and the leashed danger in Kurogane’s posture and is immediately smitten. She treats the princess like she might her own daughter, but to Kurogane she is less coy, letting their eyes meet directly and keeping her fingers pressed to Kurogane’s wrist. She is tall and slender with pale shoulder-length hair, and Kurogane drinks a little too much wine and lets herself grin in response to the queen’s flirtation, all teeth and assessing appreciation.

They kiss twice: once after the princess and the kid have retired for the night and the mage has disappeared with the white porkbun, with the queen’s arms soft around Kurogane’s shoulders and her hair soft between Kurogane’s fingers. She kisses sweetly and gently; it reminds Kurogane of Tomoyo from years before. The second time, however, she sees that the queen’s eyes are wide and shining and bright blue, and she looks up in time to see a long lean figure walking away, and she recognizes those footsteps in spite of herself.

It isn’t guilt that makes her disengage from the queen’s willing arms, but it’s close.

When she returns to her room, the mage is apparently asleep, belly-down upon the bed and her head turned away from the door. Kurogane listens to the steady sound of her breathing, and it’s on the tip of her tongue to ask: where did you come from, you said you served a king but what were you, why did I look at Queen Yuui’s face and see yours–

She swallows all of these words and takes to her own bed.

+++

Go!” says the idiot, the idiot, and for the first time in so, so long her one eye is clear. Celes is closing all around them and there’s no time for anything but action.

(If you want this, her princess had said, dark eyes liquid and sad, if you desire this with all of your heart, then make a wish and pay the price.)

Her faithful Souhi, who has served her so well for so long, cuts easily through muscle and bone. And it hurts, it hurts so damn badly, but when she reaches in and hauls the idiot-mage out of the cage crafted by her own magic, all that really matters is the smug satisfaction that she’s won.

+++

Mother, she thinks as consciousness slips away, would you still say I’m kind? Or would you think I’m selfish?

+++

So maybe this is her prize, all things said and done — her reward for her time in exile and saving a princess from her tower in one fell swoop.

Always with the royalty, she thinks — her first kiss and her final one and both of them are princesses, though with what she knows, it will be a long time, if ever, before Fay admits her heritage.

It’s all right, though. For the first time in so long, it’s all right. The star-jasmine is in full bloom and there is a delicate wreath of it woven into Fay’s long hair, though underneath she still smells of wind and ozone, and that’s all right too: Kurogane is pretty damn sure she wouldn’t know what to do with anything else.

“Kuro-sama,” Fay says drowsily. She tilts her face up, her expression kittenish and sweet but for the gleam in her gold eye. “I’m hungry.”

Kurogane snorts and lifts her bandaged wrist. “You’re a greedy bastard,” she says without heat, but stops at Fay’s cool fingers upon her hand.

“No,” Fay says as she levers herself up and leans over Kurogane; her kimono gapes wide open, showing off a long stretch of white skin. She smiles to show off her fangs. “I’m hungry.”

“You’re still greedy,” Kurogane tells her, but reaches up to hook her fingers around Fay’s neck and pulls her down. They kiss easily and without hurry as Fay settles close and her fingers skip to pull Kurogane’s kimono open. Even now her fingers are still cool, and Kurogane makes a vague surprised noise as they skitter across her warmer skin. “Oi–”

Fay breaks the kiss with a laugh. She flicks her thumb against a nipple, an appreciative hum rising in her throat at how it tightens at her touch. “I see,” she croons. “Kuro-sama likes that, then.”

Kurogane rolls her eyes and tugs her down for another kiss, this time biting at Fay’s lower lip until the other woman purrs and there is blood between them again, copper-bright and salt-sweet. Fay sucks her own lower lip into her mouth for a moment, her eyes heavy-lidded, and then she bites Kurogane’s ear hard enough that her fangs catch and pierce soft skin. When Kurogane mutters protest, Fay laughs in her ear: “I like the taste of yours better.”

“You’re a bit of a pervert, aren’t you,” Kurogane mutters. She settles her hands on Fay’s narrow hips and hooks her thumbs in the obi, pulling it loose. “You’re saying strange things.”

Fay laughs again. “I think Kuro-sama is the pervert,” she says. “Because she’s letting me do all these things.” She nuzzles at Kurogane’s throat and then lower, her fangs tracing the heavy slope of one breast; her mouth is only slightly warmer than her skin when it closes around the nipple. For how clever her tongue is with speech, it’s more clumsy in action, but her fingers are still deft and fast, and they continue to warm as they pass across Kurogane’s bared skin.

It takes little effort to roll them so that Kurogane is on top, and Fay’s hair is spilled across the pillows. She laughs as she peers up through her lashes, spreading her hands across her own narrow stomach: the kimono has fallen open, exposing bare flesh from collarbone to hip. Against Kurogane’s tanned skin, Fay is bone-white, and the contrast is something that Kurogane can’t help but watch as she tugs the rest of the cloth out of the way and sets her hands against Fay’s sides.

“If I’m a pervert,” she says, raising an eyebrow at the idiot (her idiot, for better or worse), “then it’s your fault.”

Something gentles in Fay’s expression at that. She reaches up and touches Kurogane’s cheek lightly. “Ah,” she says. “Kuro-sama is kind, isn’t she?”

“No way in hell,” says Kurogane, but lets herself be pushed back again, and closes her eyes when Fay kisses her.

And Fay might have been clumsy before — might still be in a raw unpracticed way — but she learns fast and adapts easily as breathing; she uses her teeth more than her tongue, once or twice leaving bitemarks that bleed. Her hands never quite warm completely; they leave her skin tingling in their wake, which is stupid and embarrassing to admit, but doesn’t make it any less true. Kurogane is allowed to sink her fingers into Fay’s hair and hold on, to pull for more and push for less, but every time she tries to move otherwise, Fay turns to press a kiss to her skin and whispers: next time, later, please, I promise.

It takes more patience than Kurogane will ever admit to allow this; she growls threats and promises that hardly make sense even to herself and holds on so tightly that later, she’ll find long stands of golden hair tangled around her fingers, yanked loose in her distraction. Fay herself is murmuring, her breath cool against Kurogane’s belly, things that are almost too private even as they are now — you’re beautiful, I’ve wanted, I’ve wanted, please …

Kurogane makes herself open her eyes, leaning up onto her elbows to look down as Fay settles between her legs, pushing them open.

“Oi,” she says. Her voice is more breathless than she likes, scraped down to a raw rasp. She struggles to adjust her balance so she can press her palm to Fay’s cheek, which is cool and smooth against her palm. “You know. You know that I. I …”

Fay smiles. It’s beautiful. “I know,” she says. “Tell me again later.”

She leans down and Kurogane falls back upon the bed, and anything else she meant to say or even think fades as the world goes white.

+++

Kurogane wakes later to a weight draped across her chest. There’s an arm around her waist and a head that is tucked, almost determinedly, under her chin. Blonde hair tickles her nose and she has to turn away. When she does, her burden mutters in protest and bites her shoulder — just a nip really, a warning that she ignores until she’s settled more comfortably, with Fay in the crook of her arm rather than puddled atop her.

She rests her open palm against Fay’s back, counting each soft breath. Even in her sleep, now, the idiot smiles and presses in as though comforted by Kurogane’s presence alone.

Since no one can see, Kurogane smiles herself and kisses Fay’s forehead before going back to sleep.

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Impending

1. Muko-iri was a common-law marriage custom practiced in ancient Japan, in which a man would visit a woman nightly until his parents died or she became pregnant, at which point he would move into her household, and eventually they would be considered married.

2. Koi (the fish, naturally) are considered a symbol of fertility.

+++

Kurogane woke to a heavy weight concentrated low on his hips. Normally this wouldn’t be a bad thing, but when he opened his eyes and looked at the person sitting atop him, he thought he’d probably have to revise that thought.

“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” Fay said, holding up a pillow. “But this is all your fault, so I have to kill you.”

–Definitely revised to a bad thing. Even at their worst, Fay had never seriously tried to kill him, though maybe one could raise an argument for the “honeymoon” after their settling in Japan (though Kurogane had protested this terribly: if they weren’t actually married, how the hell could it be a honeymoon? — though Fay, sneaky bastard, had just left it to Princess Tomoyo for explanations. Even now Kurogane wasn’t sure how he’d been convinced, but all right, that’s how it was), which was … beside the point.

He batted the pillow away and rolled, pinning Fay beneath him with ease.

Too much ease, really, and that made him suspicious. He squinted through the gray early-morning light (because no matter how the princess giggled at him, his eyesight was fine, damnit) down at the pale face beneath him.

“Oi,” he said. “Now what’s wrong?”

Fay stared back at him, one gold eye unblinking. “This is your fault.”

“You’ve mentioned,” Kurogane said, with what he thought was extraordinary patience. “How about telling me what‘s my fault.”

“Are you sure you want to know, Kuro-sama?” Fay’s voice turned silky, almost smug: it was a tone of voice he’d thought they’d left behind. “You might regret it if you knew.”

“Goddamnit,” he growled. “Just fucking spit it out.”

And Fay smiled, manic and wild and not really okay at all, all fangs on full display.

“I’m pregnant.”

+++

“How is this MY fault?” Kurogane demanded. “I did NOTHING.”

Tomoyo blinked at him, so mild and sweet that she wouldn’t harm a fly; it was the same sort of expression that she reserved for particularly irritating diplomats before crushing them under her dainty little heel. “Well,” she said reflectively to her teacup, “you’ve done a lot of very enthusiastic and noisy ‘nothing’ for a good six months now. If you’re old enough to understand that part, you should also already know that when a man and a woman come together like that without precaution–”

“That’s not what I meant!” Kurogane growled. He was not in the best of moods: after her revelation, the first thing Fay had done was kick him out of their bedroom, — Kurogane’s bedroom, damnit, though the damn idiot made herself at home there without welcome — so that he was left to go stalking the palace halls until he came across Tomoyo, drinking tea and reading petitions that would eventually go on to her sister. “The point is that damn woman is a vampire now, or have you forgotten?! Vampires aren’t supposed to be able to — to — be like that! How is that even physically possible?! Their bodies aren’t– and HOW THE HELL DO YOU KNOW HOW NOISY WE ARE ANYWAY?”

The princess sipped her tea. She made a pleased noise at the taste. A faint breeze stirred the bells that had been braided into her hair for the day.

“Well,” she said reflectively, “once you hit a certain volume, you shouldn’t be surprised when you’re heard.”

Kurogane made a few strangled noises. His hands rose and his fingers flexed harmlessly in air; it took a few minutes to remind himself that No, The Satisfaction Of Wringing Her Little Neck Is Not Worth It And Besides, Souma Would Yell A Lot.

Tomoyo, was serenely unthreatened by the possible danger to her life, pouring herself more tea. “As for your other question …” She turned abruptly serious eyes on him, her smile fading into a solemn line. “I don’t really know how. Even without magic of her own any more, your Fay-san comes from powerful bloodlines. Her own mother was a twin, and even if one dies …” She looked down into her cup again, her face solemn. “There’s a magic that lingers in the blood, Kurogane. You mustn’t underestimate that.”

“She what?” Kurogane stopped. He ran through Tomoyo’s words again and frowned. “You’re saying that’s why she–?”

“It might be,” said Tomoyo. She didn’t look entirely convinced herself, which for her was about as close as she ever got to saying how uneasy she felt. “From what I understand of her original world, twins were inherently magical, and this brought disaster upon …” She stopped, apparently at the look on Kurogane’s face. “Kurogane. You didn’t know this?”

He shrugged, glowing at the pale blue sky outside. “I had more important things on my mind when we were there,” he said. “Like not letting that idiot get herself killed out of some sense of martyrdom.”

Tomoyo looked at him steadily. It reminded him of the same way his mother had sometimes looked at his father, the rare times she thought he was being incredibly dense and was tolerated simply because he was “cute.” To his surprise, it worked remarkably well.

“Kurogane,” she said sternly. “I don’t think you should be having this conversation with me. How is it that I know your wife’s mother was a twin and you don’t?”

“Oi,” Kurogane protested. “I try, it’s just that the idiot won’t ever tell me anythi– WHAT DID YOU SAY SHE WAS.”

She opened her eyes wide, covering her mouth with one tiny hand and one perfectly-folded sleeve. She looked small and innocent and harmless, and Kurogane didn’t buy it for an instant. “Your wife, of course.”

“SINCE WHEN–” Kurogane reigned himself in with effort; the glint in Tomoyo’s eyes was something he’d long ago learned not to test, even before she’d sent him on that damn journey. He took a deep breath and let it out. “Since when was she my wife.

Tomoyo giggled behind her sleeve. “Well, you did do things a little backward,” she said brightly. “Normally, the husband moves into his bride’s home, but that would have been sort of awkward for the two of you, wouldn’t it? It’s all right, Kurogane. Now that she’s bearing your child, you two are finally official!” She clapped, beaming the entire time.

“What,” said Kurogane. It felt very much like he’d missed something. “What.”

Still brightly, Tomoyo said, “Muko-iri.”

Kurogane’s jaw dropped.

“Of course, it wouldn’t do for my dear Kurogane to feel unloved by his princess,” she went on, still smiling. “So you mustn’t worry about the preparations. The ceremony is just a formality at this point. I’ll take care of everything for you.”

What–”

She rose to her feet, gathering the folds of her kimono around herself gracefully. She made shooing gestures at him with both small hands. “Go on, go on, there’s nothing to be ashamed about,” she said. “Go on! Tell her the good news.”

Kurogane rather thought that this news was about as good as his wakeup call that morning, but Tomoyo had that sweet smile on her face that said if he didn’t leave, he was going to be drafted to help her with these … preparations, whatever they entailed. Judging from the smile on her face, it would probably be a great deal of pointless things that would drive him crazy within the first half-hour, if that.

One of his first lessons — given to him straight from his father — had been “know when to pick your battles.” And granted, maybe he’d never been the best at following that advice, but he was older with years of travel under his belt.

When Tomoyo drew in a new breath, eyes suddenly glinting, Kurogane chose and fled.

+++

“Now there’s something I never thought I’d see,” Souma said dryly. She leaned against the wall, her arms crossed over her breasts and her legs crossed at the ankles, one thin brow raised eloquently. She turned her head slowly, looking at the rows upon rows of demolished practice dummies. “Kurogane here, instead of picking fights with real people.”

Kurogane stabbed the practice sword into a dummy’s chest hard enough for it to break off its pole, which was satisfying in its own small way. He imagined it with Souma’s face instead, but that only made him feel a little better. “What,” he growled. “You volunteering?”

Her other brow rose eloquently. “Hardly,” she said. “Though thanks to you, we’re rather out of practice targets.”

He snorted and flicked his wrist, tossing the dummy aside. “Shouldn’t you be with the princess?”

Souma blinked at him, then smirked. She didn’t do it terribly often, which was probably a good thing — it made Kurogane nervous, though he’d never admit it as much aloud: the problem a lot of new recruits had was in thinking Souma didn’t have a sense of humor. She did, but she usually kept it under wraps, and when it did come out …

“All right, out with it,” he snapped. “What’s so damn funny.”

“Kurogane,” she said gently, and damn if that wasn’t setting off all sorts of warning bells in his head, “allow me to be the first after our princess to congratulate you on your marriage.”

He could feel a vein pulsing in his temple. “What.”

“The princess is having a wonderful time sorting through what fabrics to use for your outfits,” Souma said, deadpan except for the twinkle in her eyes. “I managed to convince her that the cherry-blossom pattern wasn’t exactly appropriate, but she really had her heart set on it. You might have to make do with the koi pattern instead.”

“I hate you,” Kurogane said with feeling.

“I know you do,” she said sweetly.

+++

The door wasn’t locked when he finally returned to his rooms (he hadn’t challenged Souma to a fight to the death, though it had been damn close) — which was a good thing, because damnit, they were his rooms and if that idiot woman thought he was going to be locked out of his own rooms, he was going to have to take Drastic Action, and he’d already received one scolding from Tomoyo for destroying palace property this week. But since it wasn’t, he pushed the door open and peered cautiously inside. There was no sign of Fay or any of the boobytraps the idiot sometimes tried to surprise him with, so he risked entering.

“Oi,” he called.

There was no answer. Kurogane considered the implications of this and put a hand on the hilt of his sword (still no Ginryuu, nor even Souhi, but a good sword regardless, one that Tomoyo had commissioned for him when he’d come home to stay) before advancing further into the room.

“Oi,” he said again. “You in here?”

Still silence. Kurogane considered his options, then used his thumb to flick the sword a half-inch from its sheath. He prowled from the doorway, cataloging details: the bed had been remade, the pillow destroyed in their earlier tussle was replaced, the little potpourri stand on the bedside table was cleaned up, and the curtains were pulled tight over the windows. His eyes cut sideways, towards the folding screen in the corner of the room (another present from Tomoyo, the silk painted with a dragon flying its way through clouds of snow).

With a sigh, he let the sword sink back into its sheath and crossed the room. He pushed back part of the screen, leaning against the wall. “Oi.”

Fay didn’t look up. She had an obi in each hand, draped across her palms and dangling close to the ground: one that was dark blue in color, embroidered with silver peonies and the other crimson with golden feathers. Her kimono hung loose and low on her shoulders, the exposed undergarment underneath also askew. She turned slowly, holding up both hands.

“Kuro-sama,” she said softly. “What do you think would work better?”

He blinked. “They’re both okay,” he said cautiously. “What the hell, you never cared before.”

“It’s important,” she said. She raised her head. Her face was paler than it had been just hours ago, and the smile that wobbled on her lips was annoyingly familiar. “When a woman becomes pregnant, she wears red, for good luck. Warm colors, to protect the baby against the cold.” She spread her fingers and tipped one hand, letting the red obi slip to the ground. “But the royal family wears blue. The queen especially. It’s considered terribly bad manners to show off her pregnancy.” She stretched the blue obi between both hands, then pressed it to her waist. “Kuro-sama, I wonder if Tomoyo-chan told you anything of what she knew about my family.”

He grunted briefly, leaning his shoulder against the wall. “She … might’ve mentioned a little,” he said cautiously. “Not that it matters.”

“Oh, no, of course not.” Fay beamed as she continued wrapping the obi around her waist. It looked pathetic, with her kimono still gaping around her. “Kuro-rinta doesn’t care about the past, just the present and maybe the future if there’s fighting involved.” She fumbled briefly while trying to tuck the ends of the obi. “Haha, whoops–”

Kurogane made an irritated noise. He took the obi from her and draped it in the crook of his elbow, pulling briskly at her kimono until the folds lay straight on her thin shoulders. “Idiot,” he said. “You know how to do this, you shouldn’t need my help.”

She laughed, quick and nervous. “Kuro-pii, how nice~”

He growled at her and got another laugh. Once he was satisfied with the look of the kimono, he ducked down and retrieved the red obi from the ground. He ignored Fay’s startled noise as he began to wrap it around her, perhaps a little more tightly than necessary — but really, the idiot was still so skinny that he could feel the bony just of her hips through layers of cloth. How she could even tell she was … the way she was … was beyond him. Possibly it was one of those Mysterious Things that came instinctively from being woman and mage both.

Well, former mage but current vampire — that counted for something, right?

“Kurogane,” Fay said. The tone of her voice wavered.

He finished tucking the obi, tugging briefly at the kimono underneath it and straightened. “Ah?”

“The blue–”

He looked at it. It was still there in the crook of his elbow. The sight of it made a vein tic in his temple; he could feel it pulsing in time with his heartbeat. Lightning-fast, his hand snapped out, grabbing a fistful of Fay’s kimono and hauling her in. She made a startled noise, going stiff against him.

“Look,” he said, biting off his words in short clipped syllables. “Idiot. You’re here now. You fucking chose it, so you damn well accept it. Nothing is going to happen. Not to you, not to me, not to princess. You got that?” He punctuated the question by shaking her briefly — not that hard, but enough to rattle her till she put a hand on his wrist for balance.

Fay blinked rapidly at him. “Kuro-sama–”

“And if it’s good luck to wear red,” he said, a bit more gruffly now, “you should wear the goddamn red. It looks good on you.”

He looked around quickly, then leaned his forehead against hers. “You’re sure you’re … right?”

Her fingers moved briefly against his wrist, not quite a caress, then fell away. “… yes.”

Kurogane’s stomach did an odd flip. He was older than his father had been, when he was born, and Suwa still lay in demon-infested ruins; he could technically claim the lands, though they would take years before anyone could hope to settle there safely. He’d killed the closest thing he’d ever have to a father-in-law without flinching; he’d made a wish to keep this irritating, idiotic, infuriating person with him and sacrificed his arm to see it come true. And now, nearly a year later, she was still leaving her clothes in his room and presenting herself to be tripped over when he was on patrol and took tea with Princess Tomoyo — and he, in spite of threats and the occasional property damage, hadn’t actually gotten rid of her yet.

“… Kuro-pin?” Fay said. She wasn’t quite hesitant, though when he focused, he could see tightness at the corners of her mouth and her one good eye.

He set his hand — the flesh-and-blood one — against the back of her head, curling his fingers in shaggy pale-gold hair. “All right,” he said.

Fay blinked again. “… All right?”

“So you’re — okay,” he said. “No stupid nicknames, got that?”

“Eh?”

“Nicknames,” he said, aggrieved. “You’ll confuse the brat if you never call it by its real name.”

And the moron just laughed at that — a good laugh, at least, one that sounded real and proper — and put her skinny arms around his neck. “But doesn’t Kuro-pokkuru think they’re cute? I think they’re cute~”

“Moron,” he said, annoyed, but let her kiss him anyway.

+++

About an hour later, he realized he hadn’t actually mentioned the marriage thing.

(Fay kept her hands stranglehold-tight in his hair and her open mouth against his throat; he could feel her fangs, though she never broke skin. He slid his hand down the curve of her back and she arched into it, her small breasts pressed hard to his chest and her one eye glowing gold. Her lean body was comfortably heavy over his, her voice rising and falling. And damnit, all right, maybe Fay was being a bit loud but he wasn’t even when she fucking bit him — not hard enough to draw blood, but his entire body jerked with it and he may have made some sort of noise himself but — oh, fuck it.)

… Later, he decided; he was going to need all his wits for that one.

+++

Kurogane woke later, disoriented from too much sleep, and swatted sleepily at the cold finger tracing patterns along his chest. In his ear, Fay just laughed and started drawing along his arm instead. He squinted an eye open and found her smiling face hovering close to his; there was a relaxation in her now that hadn’t been there earlier. “What.”

“I had a dream, Kuro-sama,” she said. Down his real arm, she wrote the kanji for his name. “I saw Sakura-chan.”

“The princess?” That woke him a little more. He swatted at her fingers again and propped himself onto his elbows. “Is she–”

“She’s fine,” Fay said lightly. “More than fine. She married Syaoran-kun, of course.”

He grunted. “Thought so,” he said, and jumped when cold fingers skittered across his abdomen. “Oi–”

“We’re grandparents,” Fay added. “It looks like time in Clow runs a bit faster than it does here.”

He caught her wrist before her hand could venture lower. “We’re what?”

“Kuro-daddy, how cold!” She pouted at him, lower lip shiny-wet. “Sakura-chan is a mother now, and all you can say is ‘what’?”

“The brat and the princess–”

“Twins, in fact,” Fay went on. “A boy and a girl. Named after us, even.”

Something in the tone of her voice warned him, too brittle to be sustained for long. He pushed himself further up until he was sitting properly, and Fay was leaning against his side. “Twins, huh,” he said, his voice neutral. “They’re doing all right?”

“Sakura-chan is very happy,” Fay said, blandly cheerful, and didn’t look up. “She said she thinks that maybe her daughter has inherited some of her magic, and if so, maybe she could teach her how to travel in dreams, and we could meet. Wouldn’t that be nice? She misses us.”

“She’s softhearted,” Kurogane agreed, with the same blandness in his voice. “Twins?”

Fay flinched. Before she could use that momentum to get away, he turned and threw an arm around his waist, using that and his own bulk atop her to keep her pinned. Blandly, he said, “Not bad, huh? Twins. The brat’ll spoil them, but the princess’ll make sure they grow up okay.”

“Ahaha,” said Fay. She turned her head to one side, staring at the wall. “Or maybe Sakura-chan will spoil them and Syaoran-kun will be the strict one.”

“Nah,” said Kurogane, and pressed down harder with his weight. “But who knows, with twins. Maybe they’ll switch off.”

“Kuro-sama,” she protested, pushing at his chest with limp hands and a fraction of the strength he knew she could muster if she wanted. “You’re heavy~”

“You don’t need to breathe that much,” Kurogane said reasonably. “I’ve seen you hold your breath for a lot longer.”

She pouted at him again, though it didn’t hold together as well as the first. “Ahhh, Kuro-pin’s such a bully~”

“Twins,” he said again, stressing the word, and Fay twitched again. “Is that what you’re worried about?”

Fay remained quiet for so long that he almost prompted her again; when she spoke, her voice was quiet. “My mother had a twin sister, Kurogane.”

“Yeah?” Kurogane tried to gentle his voice in response, but it came out mostly gruff instead. “Tomoyo mentioned.”

“They killed her sister when they were infants,” Fay went on, her voice fading in and out. She still wouldn’t look him in the eye. “To prevent the curse. My mother … never quite recovered from that. When my brother and I were born, she …” She bit her lip, hard enough to draw blood in a bead that welled and then slid down the corner of her mouth. “But the thing is, Kurogane, my grandmother had been a twin, as well. Her brother was killed. Three generations of twins: my grandmother drank herself to death, my mother killed herself when my father died, and I …”

Kurogane shifted his weight. He used his thumb to wipe away blood from Fay’s mouth before it could reach the pillow. “You think you’ll be the same.”

“In Valeria, twins are a sign of misfortune,” Fay whispered. “You can delay it, but in the end–”

Kurogane caught her chin in hand, jerking her head up. “Idiot,” he said. “Didn’t you listen before?”

“Kuro–”

“You’re here,” he stressed. “You’re in Japan. Not Celes, not Valeria, nowhere but Japan. And even if you are having twins, it wouldn’t matter.”

“Kurogane, that hurts–”

“Being pregnant isn’t an excuse for being even more of an idiot than you normally are,” Kurogane growled. “If you’re going to be a mother, you’d better fucking act like one, you got that?”

She stared, and didn’t bother trying to say anything in argument. Taking encouragement from that, he continued, “I wouldn’t mind twins. In–” He hesitated, then let go of her face, bracing his hand against the bed for balance. “In Suwa,” he went on, more gruffly than before, “they were considered good luck.”

Fay’s one gold eye went wide. “Eh …”

“It meant a bountiful harvest and an easy winter,” he muttered. “Because if the gods sent a woman twins, it meant they knew that easy times were coming, and the family could handle it.” He watched her cover her mouth with both hands, and said, “If we have twins, that won’t be such a bad thing.”

“Oh,” she said quietly, muffled by her hands. She didn’t start crying, thankfully, but she looked about as moved as he’d ever seen her. “Oh, that’s …”

“So,” he said gruffly. “Are we done now? You’re going to stop waking me up with your goddamn issues?”

She gave a small watery laugh. “I didn’t wake you before,” she said. “You came in and interrupted me getting dressed.”

“It happened two out of three times,” he said. “It counts. You’re done?”

“Yes,” she said. She smiled at him and he almost flushed, surprised by the warm genuine affection in her eyes. “Yes, I am.”

+++

He woke some time later with hair in his mouth and long skinny (cold) limbs wrapped around him. Even before her conversion, Fay had been a heatsink, but now the idiot cuddled like she’d freeze to death without the contact — and considering how cold her arm was, draped on top of the blankets, maybe that wasn’t too far from the truth. Kurogane plucked at her wrist and got muttered at; he shifted his weight and she rolled against him, shifting to accommodate his movement. It freed his hand enough that he could reach down between them and rest his palm against her naked belly.

It didn’t feel any different from the day before, or the day before that — or the weeks into months before that. She still looked too skinny for this sort of thing, and though it had been determined that she could still eat some food, blood would still be the most important thing.

Trust this idiot, of all idiots, he thought, to do this to herself. He pressed gently with his fingers and felt her stomach twitch under his hand. It’d be a pain, that was for certain: but he’d already gotten involved, so like it or not, he was committed now. Honor demanded it.

And, really … it wasn’t so bad. Kurogane let his arm settle around her waist and let her press her cold nose against his collarbone. He closed his eyes — not that he was still tired or anything, because even if he wasn’t a teenager any more, he wasn’t old

Kurogane closed his eyes and did not dream.

+++

Princess Tomoyo was no longer a dreamseer, but she could still dream: so she did.

The princess of Clow met her beside a long lovely river, dressed in air white and barefoot among the long cool grasses. She smiled and caught Tomoyo’s hands and kissed both cheeks, and Tomoyo kissed her back in turn, pleased at the healthy shine in the other girl’s bright eyes and soft face.

“Thank you,” said Tomoyo. “Kurogane is a clever man, but sometimes he forgets that about himself.” She sighed fondly. “I think Fay-san must be the same way.”

Sakura just shook her head, still smiling. “I didn’t do anything,” she said. “I just wanted to see Fay-san again because I was worried, but I didn’t need to be.” She squeezed Tomoyo’s hands. “Everything will be all right.”

“If Sakura-chan believes it,” Tomoyo said, “then it’ll certainly come true.”

Princess Sakura beamed. “Dream about the wedding for me,” she said.

“In detail,” Tomoyo promised, and let Sakura’s hands slip away from hers, watching the other girl turn to the river and step lightly down, running across the water to be swallowed up by the mists of the dream.

+++

Tomoyo woke, but down the hall, in the comfort of his own (shared) bed, Kurogane slept on.

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and lets it shine through

Until the day he dies, he is going to know the taste of Clair’s blood: mixed in wine, mixed with sweat, bright and clean on his tongue.

+++

Giovanni remembers: being eighteen and still not entirely used to his new world of clean sheets and fresh food, lying awake and restless when his door opened. He remembers rolling out of bed, gun in hand, and stopping only when he registered Clair’s presence in his doorway. He remembers stick-thin boylimbs: the jutting knob of wrist bone and the the sweep of calves, and how pale they were in the light of the full moon.

He remembers his own shock and the sound of his voice saying Clair’s name; he remembers the light in Clair’s eyes — and wasn’t he too young for this, wasn’t he still just a kid even if he was Vampire’s son — and he remembers the coy edge in Clair’s voice, skirting an innocent little-kid question into dangerous territory: I had a nightmare, can I stay?

Even that long ago, he’d been unable to say no. Clair’s body had been bony and all angles and he generated enough heat that Giovanni could feel himself sweat; he’d remained awake the entire night, too nervous to sleep. No one in Company Vita was completely irreplaceable, even the Vampire himself (hence Clair’s grooming, hence his training, the odd mix of fatherly benevolence and tyrannical expectations), and certainly a no-family kid from the slums wouldn’t be missed by anyone but the young master, and there were already enough sharp-eyed men angling for a spot close to the next Vampire.

Eighteen and still mostly awkward in his own skin, Giovanni had known that the worth of his own life depended on the young boy (young man) curled against him, and so he remained awake and watching shadows where they blended into cool patterns on Clair’s skin, pale enough to glow in the moonlight. He remembers this clearly, like he could turn his head and find himself back in that room with Clair tucked into the crook of his arm, breathing in the quiet space between.

He remembers this as Clair’s giggles fill the little room, as he watches Clair rock back and forth on the small bed, as eyes meet his and slide away without registering his presence. Light comes in filtered from the curtains — even if they’re here under Shogun’s protection, Giovanni doesn’t dare leave them open — and leaves Clair looking dull and limp. There is nothing of that long-ago shine in him now.

Giovanni keeps his fingers tight on his gun and remembers.

+++

“I’m going to be Vampire, you know,” Clair had said, with the afternoon sun bright in his newly-dyed bangs. The silver ring in his lip flashed with each word.

“I know,” Giovanni had answered, and he had: it was a bone-deep knowledge and instinctive as breathing. He’d held still as Clair leaned forward, bony knees bracketing his thighs and a brief weight perched on his knees. His eyes were dazzled if he looked Clair straight in the face.

“That means you’ll have to do everything I tell you,” Clair had said, and put his skinny arms around Giovanni’s neck. And then he’d leaned in, till he eclipsed everything else in Giovanni’s sight, and laughed in his ear: “But wait, you already do.”

+++

“Papa bought me a girl,” Clair says idly; he’s obviously wearing nothing under the sheets bunched at his waist. Giovanni is frozen: it’s not the first time he’s seen his young master naked, but there is something very different in this particular scenario compared to helping Clair dress for functions, or even caring for him when ill. This is a young man whose predator-eyes are knowing and fixed on their target. “My first. I learned some interesting things from her.”

“Did … you.” Giovanni’s voice sounds strange to his own ears. In the back of his mind he’s composing a protest letter — one of thousands he’s directed towards Lorenzo Leonelli for years about how he treats his son — and so it’s too late when he hears himself say: “Like what.”

Clair grins, flashing white teeth in a red mouth. His lip ring is a stark hard line of metal in soft flesh. Like water, like a cat, he melts off the bed, dragging sheets with him. They ride so low that it’s more obscene than if he just came naked; his hipbones are clean sharp lines under his white skin. Giovanni thinks, the door is still open, but says nothing as Clair presses against him and finally lets the thin sheet fall. He is warm as he was a year ago, curled into Giovanni’s side, but there is a sense of deliberate intent now: the light in Clair’s eyes is conquering now, smug with the knowledge of his victory and basking in it.

“Do you really want to know?” Clair hisses. He giggles briefly, but he’s quiet steady when he begins to undo the buttons of Giovanni’s shirt. Giovanni’s hands rise and hover in the air by Clair’s thin shoulders. He should stop this, he thinks; Clair’s too young, too brilliant, too everything that a lower-city slum bastard can’t touch —

“I’ll show you,” Clair whispers, and firmly yanks Giovanni’s pants open before sliding to his knees with that same sinuous educated grace. Everything that Giovanni meant to say sputters and dies rather spectacularly as long fingers wrap around his cock and Clair’s hot mouth closes around him, because holy fuck there is no way Clair’s first girl could teach him this

His head hits the wall hard enough to hurt and he makes strangled noises as Clair laughs around him — not his usual giggle, but low and pleased and Giovanni just gives up and sinks his fingers into Clair’s hair, holding tightly as he dares, groaning again as Clair’s hands settle on his hips in turn and urge him into raw movement, into fucking Clair’s mouth and there’s no resistance, no gagging when his cock hits the back of Clair’s throat and fuck, fuck, he’s getting sucked off by Clair Leonelli and he can’t make himself look because he thinks he might go blind from the way Clair shines.

+++

That’s silly, in retrospect, but Giovanni remembers being slumped against the wall and watching dazedly as Clair licked his own fingers clean, and knows he didn’t imagine the smug glow that came from within.

+++

And here they are: his arm hurts so badly that he’s nearly blacked out twice when it shifted in just the wrong way and his breath comes rattling and pained in his chest. He still doesn’t get what happened, not really — he’d honestly expected to die in that dingy little alley. That someone (and Giovanni has no illusions on who that “someone” is) would hide an assassination program in the old man’s AI isn’t that surprising; the man behind “Serge Echigo” isn’t one to leave himself any room for failure. He rather hopes Daisuke won’t find out — it’d be insult on top of injury.

It’s all come to this, the former Vampire and his most loyal dog creeping together inch by painful inch through the lower streets of Judoh. Giovanni hurts all over, not just his arm, but there’s a smile that stretches his mouth till it aches. It’s a welcome little pain, it’s all completely worth it, because Clair is tucked under his arm, pressed against him, full-circle-but-not, and there is light in them again, brilliant and fierce enough to challenge the sun.

“What’s so funny?” Clair asks sharply. He’s not looking at Giovanni; he’s too busy checking all around them, because maybe the old man didn’t follow them, but it’s unlikely that Shun Aurora would only have one backup murder weapon. “Spit it out.”

“Nah,” says Giovanni. He shakes his head, and welcomes the ache in his head that comes as a result. “Welcome back, Clair.”

Clair glances sharply at Giovanni. Then he grins, bright-eyed and gloriously awake.

“Hmph,” he says. “Like I’d leave you in the dark for long.”

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The Boy Without Fear

Listen to my song: for I have grown old, but I still remember as keenly as the young. Lend me your time, and I will repay you in kind with a story. It will start like this:

***

In the lands east of the sun and west of the moon, there lived a boy who did not know fear, known by those of his village as Walker-Without-Shadow.

He was the youngest of seven brothers, all born to a seventh daughter, who in their tiny village was called a witch and kept no husband. She taught her sons many ordinary things, such as which plants to heal and which plants to poison, and she taught them how to listen to the voices in the ash-trees and how to follow the directions of the birds, who are terrible gossips, but are clever at finding out the truths of this world, and those above and below. All of her children were strong and beautiful, and she loved them all, but of all her sons she loved the youngest best. Continue reading

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when nothing remains to cover her eyes

She remembers the stories that the maids used to tell of her mother, behind cupped hands when they thought no one else was listening: how she had not always been that fragile pale creature who spent her days either in bed or by the window and stared out at the falling snow; how she had been wise and lovely and kind, beloved of her husband and her people.

Such a pity, the maids sighed, such a shame that the honored princess would be the one who gave birth to the twins of misfortune; how sad that someone so fair and gentle would be the one to bring disaster upon the world — and so tenderhearted that she *hid* the twins of misfortune in the desperate hope that if the rest of the world did not know of her sin, then perhaps its curse would be averted.

That is the image she holds in her mind when she creates a grave-keeper for her brother: a soft voice and a mother’s face, loyally keeping watch over that tiny glass coffin. She is not the only woman in King Asura’s court, but she is the only one who doesn’t serve in capacity as a maid or a cook or healer; she is the only one whose spells can raze entire mountains to dust. She keeps her hair cropped short and is grateful for her spare build; the men know she’s a woman without *knowing*; they look at her like a comrade, like the king’s trusted wizard — but no nobler, no more higher in rank than the rest of them.

Princesses are creatures that get referenced in the books of Asura’s library, sweet-faced and pure-hearted. She isn’t one. She can’t be one. She doesn’t know how.

She has rough hands in her gloves and her magic devours and destroys. King Asura calls her beautiful, but in the way that the snow-covered landscape is lovely: spare and cold and unforgiving, rather than warm or kind. She does not have the arms to embrace the hurts of the world to her breast; all she has room for was her wish, and the path to achieving it.

+++

And then: the ice king went to sleep.

And then: the desert princess lost her “heart.”

+++

In the winter of another country, they give her a dress to wear. She looks at it blankly and doesn’t quite understand how it works — in Celes, in Valeria, if women wore dresses, they were hardly more than ornate heavy robes over dense warm undergarments. Jade Country is not even a fraction as bitterly cold, but the dress still seems … impractical. She would much rather wear a frock-coat and trousers, as she’s seen the boy and the ninja (Syaoran-kun and Kuro-pippi, Kuro-tan, Kuro-sama) wear. The dress feels like a pretense.

“Fay-san?” the princess mumbles from the bed. She’s been carefully wrapped and warmly tucked away, poor little thing; for a desert princess, all this snow must be a terrible shock.

She fixes an immediate smile on her face and turns, still holding the dress. “Sakura-chan?”

“Are you having trouble?” Very slowly Sakura sits up; she rubs both of her eyes like a child. It’s cute. “That’s a very pretty dress.”

“Eheh~ do you think?” She holds it up against herself in model. “Hmm, but it’s not really to my tastes. Where I come from, dresses are rather impractical! It’s cold all the time, so we just wear lots and lots of layers. Only royalty–” She cuts herself off, so quickly that she tastes blood and the inside of her cheek stings.

Princess Sakura shakes her head. She untangles herself from the bed with dreamy, deliberate slowness. She’s still so obviously tired, the poor thing, and she crosses over to the fireplace and takes the dress.

“I’ll help you,” she says. She smiles, and the firelight casts warm shadows across her smooth face. It makes her look young and old and beautiful. “This style is tricky by yourself, anyway. Someone needs to lace you up in the back.” She smooths the dress’ full skirt and her little fingers are snow-white against the dark green velvet. “Turn around, please, Fay-san?”

And in spite of herself she does, letting Sakura help her wrestle into the dress with its voluminous skirts and layers and soft bell sleeves; sits with her head bowed forward and breath sucked in as the little princess tugs on the laces to pull them appropriately tight. Fingers brush the nape of her neck, playing against the short hair, and she freezes.

“Fay-san has such pretty hair,” the princess says in warm admiration. “It’s so soft, and the color is so nice! Have you ever thought of growing it out?”

She thinks of her mother (of Chii), and long, long cascades of white-blonde hair covered in nets of seed-pearls and braided with tiny crystals of blue and white. She thinks of the dirty unwashed rat’s-nest of hair that King Asura himself cut for her, and the way the messy tangle had hidden her brother’s face, softened some of its sunken hollowness.

“No,” she says, but leans into Sakura’s petting anyway.

+++

There’s another princess here, too, hundreds of years dead but still lingering on, watching over the castle that she kept in life. Like the stories in Asura’s collection, she was beautiful and sweet and protected the children of her kingdom, gathering them into the shelter of her wings.

The ghost speaks to Sakura of course; the little princess has a power that will grow all too soon — but more than that, it is one woman to another, one princess to another.

Neither of them acknowledge her, and she keeps her face turned away, not watching.

+++

It all goes wrong, of course.

It always goes wrong.

There is nowhere you can go to outrun your own curse, after all.

+++

Sakura weighs so very little, even with the metal braces on her still-lame leg, the ones their new sponsor has been generous to provide her. She stumbles once — only once, drifting weightless as one of her own feathers — and already has her equilibrium back by the time Syaoran catches her hand. She smiles at him vaguely, and she cannot be seeing him — she has to be seeing the other Syaoran, *her* Syaoran — but it doesn’t show in her eyes or on her lips when she thanks him.

Even now, taken apart and clumsily stitched back together again — even now, tired and grieving and far from home — she is every inch a princess. There is steel in Sakura that will not bend nor break; madness will not take her as it did Valeria’s crown princess, years ago.

She stays close to her princess and maybe allows herself to bask a little. Sakura is a soothing presence compared to Kurogane’s anger (and he’s so angry these days, paranoid and watchful and growling with every breath — well. She had earned his ire by now, hadn’t she?) and the awkward almost-familiar edges of this new Syaoran. She walks two steps behind, one to the left, as she had always walked behind her king; she follows her princess to her room.

“I must be a horrible person,” Sakura says, in the relative haven of her room. She turns and is leaning in close, her tiny fragility and terrible strength curled into a compact package that smells of leather and chemical fruits. The princess’ slim little fingers trace the collar around her throat (for you, my princess, only for you, it’s no burden) and her green eyes are dim and quiet. “It’s not even his fault, but I can’t …”

She takes her princess’ wrists in her own and marvels at their delicacy: a little pressure here, a push there, and it would snap between her fingers. She kisses one palm, then the other. Like this she can smell the blood that rushes so close to the surface.

“Syaoran-kun has his own burdens,” she says into white skin, her lips shaping words directly to flesh. Sakura shivers and bites her lip. (Poor little bird, she doesn’t even understand her own embarrassment.) “He would never blame Sakura-chan for having her own, and he’d take them from you if he could.”

Sakura shakes her head. For a moment she is that earnest innocent girl again: the princess beloved of her people, unaware of the darker, harsher things in the world. “It’s not right, though. I was the one who made the decision to do anything I can to get Syaoran-kun’s heart back — the real Syaoran-kun, the one who’s real to me …” She reaches up and brushes careful fingers against the bottom of the eye patch. “And Fay-san, too, has been hurt because of me …”

“No,” she says, and then again, “No. Sakura-chan, no.”

“I want everything to be all right,” Sakura murmurs. “I used to be able to say that. ‘Everything will be all right!’ Right now, I can’t believe it myself.” She presses closer, warm soft flesh and a pulse that pounds rabbit-quick in her thin breast.

“If my princess wishes,” she whispers, “then it’ll come true.”

Sakura shakes her head. “I’ve made so many wishes,” she murmurs. “Too many wishes, and they all flew away …”

She moves before that voice fades into silence, scooping her princess up before the little girl can fall and cradles her close (soft as feathers, so light she might vanish with a heavy breath) and carries her to bed. (Tiny princess, brave lovely child, royalty she herself will never be.) She has another kiss for each palm, and it grieves her to feel calluses forming there.

Her own magic is only destructive, and never has she regretted that more.

Sakura blinks at her, slow and tired, and she leans down until she can feel her princess’ breath against her own mouth.

“Whatever you wish,” she says against slack lips. “Whatever you want, if it’s within my power …” She can hear each individual beat of Sakura’s heart, the wet rush of blood under fragile skin. The creature that’s living in her skin can’t have anything but Kurogane’s blood, but its hunger takes so many forms: for the white smooth skin of Sakura’s neck, for the gently shallow rise of her breasts, for the instinctive poise that is a *princess*–

She pulls back. Sakura is asleep.

She touches Sakura’s parted lips; she touches the slow steady pulse in her princess’ throat and touches her own tongue to her fangs until they cut and she tastes blood.

She’s hungry, she thinks. She should find Kurogane.

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No Friend Of Mine

“It’ll be fun,” Janis coaxed, hugging his arm between her breasts and flashing him the biggest eyes she could manage. “C’mon, Daaaai, you haven’t been by for ages.” She pouted, red lower lip pushing out.

“She’s right,” Vivian agreed, tugging at Daisuke’s collar — though whether to straighten it or pull it aside, he still wasn’t sure. “You keep promising you’ll come play, and then you never do.” She leaned forward, allowing a good look down her low-cut shirt, and fluttered her lashes at him. “Dai, don’t you love us any more?”

He shrugged, pulling his sunglasses from his pocket. “It’s just been busy,” he said. “I don’t just come here for fun, you know. Man’s gotta work.”

“Oh, poo.” Cynthia stuck her tongue out. “Too much work isn’t healthy for anyone. Surely even your bosses let you have a vacation now and then?” She traced a red-painted nail down his arm, biting her lip. “Come on, Daiii, even the boss misses you. Says he’ll forgive you for trashing the place last time you came.”

“Hey,” he said mildly. “I was trying to prevent a drug transaction that was set to happen in your back room. It’s not my fault the guy didn’t want to come quietly like a good law-abiding citizen.” He spread his hands. “Or the time that the guy took a shot at me because I’d gotten one of his buddies busted a few weeks back. Or when J tracked that one rogue machine into the back alley behind your shop and–”

“That’s all in the past now,” Janis said brightly. She leaned in until her cheek was pressed to his, and fluttered her lashes. “Come onnn, Daiiiii, you know you want to. It’ll be fun! Say you will, pleeeeeease?”

“Please,” Vivian said, bright-eyed, echoed a moment later by Cynthia; it was the most insistent they’d been in a long time. When he leaned back, they followed, all sparkling eyes and hopeful smiles.

Daisuke sighed, getting to his feet and extracting his arm from Vivian’s grasp. “Fine,” he said. “Fine, I’ll go. Tonight, you say?”

The girls cheered as he put his sunglasses on. “You promise, right?” Cynthia asked, peering into his face. “That’s definitely a promise, so you’d better make it!”

“Right, right,” he sighed, tossing a wave over his shoulder without looking back. “I’ll be there.”

+++

“A man must always keep the promises he makes,” J said.

Daisuke peered at him suspicously. “The last time you went in for maintenance,” he said, “did Dr. Bellucchi install a sarcasm chip in you?”

J’s eyes focused on him. The machine’s expression never changed, but he said, “Such a thing is not necessary. You have made a promise, Daisuke. You should be willing to see it through.”

He groaned, scrubbing a finger through his hair. “Man, I was afraid you’d say that …”

+++

The club was dark except for the moving, brightly-colored lights on the stage. Daisuke paused in the doorway, peering into the dimness. There were girls dancing on the stage, moving and gyrating together and apart; there were girls in the audience draped over their patron of choice. It was almost a literal wall of moving flesh and he hesitated, scanning the crowds — if he was lucky, he might be able to skip out and just say he’d been by —

“Daiiiii!” Cynthia’s voice shrilled over the crowd; a moment later he was flanked by all three girls, dressed in clothes that were noticably flashier and skimpier than during the day. “You came after all!”

He leaned back a little, laughing a bit nervously. “Well,” he said. “Looks like they turned me loose earlier than I thought, and I thought I’d come. I’ve made it, so I’ll just–”

“Ehhh, noo, you need to come inside!” Vivian seized hold of his arm, pulling. “Have a drink on us, Dai, come on, you can’t run away from us just yet!”

“Give me a break,” he sighed, but let himself be pulled into the club fully; it was easier to let them guide his footsteps through the crowded dark area. “I’ve still got work tomorrow, you know–”

“Oh, don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it at all!” Cynthia said brightly. “Just let us take care of you, Dai, we’ll make sure that you’re taken care of.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.” He looked around as he was pressed into a seat. “Besides, aren’t you three all working right now?”

“We’re on break,” Janis said. She perched on the arm of his chair, and Vivian hitched herself on the other, fighting for space with Cynthia. “So come on, Dai, let’s have fun, okay? We’ll get you some drinks, and we could play cards — you’re a lucky man, you know that?” She prodded his shoulder and leaned down, so that the weight of her breasts rested against it. “We’re suuuper-popular, you know.”

“Uh-huh,” he muttered, eyeing the drink that Cynthia pushed into his hand; it was electric pink and had a small paper umbrella sticking out of it. “Popular enough that you can spend most of the day hanging out at Kabuki Road and harass hardworking citizens?”

Vivian smacked his shoulder gently. “Be nice,” she scolded. “Here we are, paying attention to you! Three pretty girls when there’s only one of you, how are you losing?”

“Right,” he said. He took a cautious sip of his drink and managed to keep from gagging; it was sweet enough to make his teeth ache with a vaguely fruity aftertaste. “I’m … really doing well here, aren’t I.”

“Of course!” Cynthia said proudly. She drew herself up, putting a hand over her heart. “We’re the flowers of this shop — men fight over who gets to spend time with one of us by ourselves, let alone all three!”

“She’s right,” Vivian piped up, twirling pale blonde hair around one finger. “We work hard, we’re a big draw for this place.”

From the bar, there was a bellow, over the tinny piped-in music and the voices of the crowd; all three girls flinched. Daisuke swirled his cup, eyeing the liquid before taking another hesitant sip. It still tasted overly sweet. “Sounds to me like you’re not drawing enough,” he said, over the effort to not simply cough at the sugar burn down his throat. “Shouldn’t you go see what your boss wants?”

Janis threw a pouting look over her shoulder. “Poo,” she said. “And we were having fun, too …”

“Hey.” Daisuke waved a hand. “Business comes before pleasure, okay? I don’t want to wear out my welcome here again, if I’ve just gotten reinvited.” He leaned back in his chair as the call came again, not quite lounging as the three girls reluctantly peeled themselves away from him, heading back towards the bar. He wiggled his fingers at them and waited until the crowd swallowed them up before putting his drink down and gingerly pushing it as far away as possible. He watched it for a few moments, lips pursed, and then, when satisfied that it wouldn’t really eat through the material of the glass, he switched his attention to the girls onstage.

Prostitution had been legalized in Judoh around the same time machines had been outlawed; some nervous senator or other, upset at losing one outlet, had apparently pushed for allowing the other. Most girls worked out of clubs like this one, complete with their own regulations and health laws, and a man could easily be blacklisted for mistreating one, or refusing medical tests or protection. It also meant that most of the girls in the shop were a valuable information resource; there had been once or twice in his memory when they’d heard of things even before Shougun. Daisuke made it a habit to stay friendly, whenever and wherever he could.

He didn’t look away from the stage when the chair next to his was pulled out, though he watched the other guy from the corner of one eye. He was thin and clean-shaven, hunching his shoulders in like a man trying to disguise his height, with long hands that he folded together on the tabletop. His hair was cut in a shaggy fringe over his eyes, dark brown in color; he turned his head towards Daisuke for a moment, then snapped his gaze away again, as though embarrassed to be caught. Though he looked to be around the same age, he looked so young and new that he’d squeak if he turned too fast. Daisuke grinned in spite of himself, leaning forward a little.

“Nice show, huh?” he said.

The man jumped, large hands fumbling in air for a moment. “Um,” he said; even in the dim light, it was obvious he was blushing. “I’m just — I’m here with some friends, they insisted, and. Uh. Well, they’ve got company and I’m not … ahahaha, that’s not to say I’m, you know — but I just — um.” He ducked his head for a moment, then lifted it again with apparent effort, meeting Daisuke’s eyes. “I’m Ryuu.”

“Daisuke,” he said with a grin, offering a hand. “I got dragged here by friends too.”

“Did you?” Ryuu’s eyes lit up, perhaps a little too brightly and desperately. “I, um. I’m glad.” He took Daisuke’s hand in a warm, slightly damp grip and shook it. “Oh, good. I mean — not good that you’re here if you don’t want to be, but good that you’re–” He cut himself off and gave a brief, nervous laugh. “Uh. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Daisuke said, and smiled.

+++

“Is this all right?” Ryuu muttered. His hands were large and a little sweaty, but they were warm and mostly steady, one cupping the back of Daisuke’s head with his fingers sunk into Daisuke’s hair and the other resting on his hip beneath shirt and pants. He kissed open-mouthed and sloppy, his mouth tasting more of alcohol than anything else, panting a little against the curve of Daisuke’s ear. “You don’t — if you don’t want to, we shouldn’t–”

Daisuke laughed softly. “I’ve got nowhere else I need to be,” he said. He skimmed both hands up and down Ryuu’s sides, feeling out each ticklish flinch and line of muscle. It felt good — Ryuu was of height with him but more heavily built, and he wasn’t that afraid to lean his weight into Daisuke, pressing him into the alley wall. “You?”

“No,” Ryuu said. He smiled; it made him look both earnest and young. His mouth was swollen and wet. “I don’t. I just wanted to make sure–”

“I’m fine,” Daisuke repeated, hooking his fingers into the belt loops of Ryuu’s pants and hitching him closer. “So let’s just–”

Ryuu made a small keening noise in his throat, pushing closer. “Daisuke,” he said, like it was some sort of prayer. “Daisuke, Daisuke–”

At the mouth of the alley, headlights flashed, bright enough to make them both flinch. Daisuke turned his head, squinting into the glare; it took a moment of adjusting to see the slim figure standing there, backlit by the hard glow.

“Oh, my,” said a voice. “Isn’t this embarrassing? Daisuke Aurora, hanging out in back alley like some sort of nameless slut?”

Daisuke’s mouth twisted as he raised an eyebrow. “Considering you know my name,” he said, “doesn’t that defeat the purpose of that insult?”

The newcomer giggled, a high rattling sound that Daisuke recognized: it wasn’t the sort of laugh one forgot. “This is my city,” he said. “I make it my business to know everyone’s name.” He laughed again. “You know how it works, don’t you, Daisuke?”

“It’s you, then,” Daisuke said. He shook his head. “Convinient, how you always show up at such opportune moments.”

The lights from the car dimmed. Clair Leonelli tipped his head to one side and smiled, wide-eyed and toothy. “I just happened to be passing by,” he said. “But look, look what I’ve caught you doing. Wouldn’t your big brother be so disappointed?”

“Heh.” Daisuke smirked. “My bro’s given up on trying to control that part of my life.” He spread his hands with a shrug. “Took him a long time, but he’s gotten over it.”

Ryuu looked from Daisuke to Clair and back again, obvious panic growing on his face. “That’s,” he began, and swallowed hard. “He’s. And you’re–”

“Daisuke,” Clair said; his tone was almost repoachful. “Didn’t you tell him anything?”

“I told him what he needed to know,” Daisuke said. He leaned back against the wall, and when Ryuu pulled back, he let his fingers slip free of their hold on his clothes. “Honestly, doesn’t Company Vita’s Vampire have anything better to do with his time?”

“Vuh,” Ryuu said. He continued backing up, wild-eyed. “Vuh, vuh–”

Clair glanced at him, then looked away, clearly dismissive. “I thought you had better taste,” he said. “Picking up people from a–” His gaze flicked up, then down again. “A gentleman’s club?”

Daisuke shrugged. He stuck his hands into his pockets and grinned. “Seemed like a good idea at the time,” he said. When Ryuu finally broke and ran for it, neither of them watched him go. “So what do I owe the pleasure of your company, Clair Leonelli?”

“I happened to be in the area,” Clair said. His eyes were bright and his grin stretched across his entire face, distorting the softness of it. He strode forward, his gait loose and easy. “After all, Kabuki Road is mine. I make it a point of knowing what’s going on at all times.” He stopped in front of Daisuke, leaning to the side until he actually had to look up into Daisuke’s face to smirk. “And look at what I’ve found.”

“Heh.” Daisuke shook his head. “Looks like to me that you’re just spying,” he drawled. “That’s hardly good behavior, isn’t it?”

Clair’s lip curled. “Good boys don’t have to prove anything. They get to play and not worry at all …” He giggled, teeth catching his lip near the cold metal glint of the ring, tongue flicking out and leaving a brief shining-wet trail. He tilted his head, and for a brief moment only one pale eye was visible through his bangs, glittering poison-bright. “But you’re out here in the cold, fucking in an alley.” Teeth flashed in his sudden smile. “You’re judging me again.”

Daisuke shrugged. “Him?” he said. “He bought me a drink. It could’ve been worse.”

“Is that your price, then?” Clair straightened, one eyebrow rising in an eloquent question. “A single drink for Daisuke Aurora?”

“I like meaningful conversations and long walks by the riverfront, too,” Daisuke said, letting the words pull out into a drawl. “I do have some standards.”

Clair rocked back on his heels as though physically pushed by the words. A moment later he began to laugh again, the sound starting in his throat and rising to a full-fledged cackle until he was doubled over from the force of it. Daisuke watched him narrowly, still leaning against the wall but tensed — the Leonelli car is still there even if its headlights are dimmed, and he doesn’t doubt that the driver’s got a gun trained on him just in case — for the fight that’s beginning to look inevitable.

Instead, Clair was suddenly in his face — they were almost the same height, and that their foreheads almost touched when Clair leaned in. A fraction of movement on either part would have them touching, but all Daisuke felt was quick fast breath against his cheek, and the heat that poured from Clair’s thin body like a furnace.

“Let’s go inside,” Clair said. He glanced towards the car, and though he made no obvious gesture, it began to back up, then pulled out of the alley and drove away. He looked back to Daisuke, biting a grin on his lower lip. His hand brushed phantom-light on Daisuke’s wrist, still not quite touching. “What sort of place is this, hm?”

“Right,” Daisuke said. He pulled back, lifting an eyebrow. “Because I’ll go anywhere with you.”

“Oh,” Clair said, and broke up snickering. “I think you will. See …” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out enough of a grenade to show it off, his thumb hooking into the tab. “I’ve been thinking of redecorating a bit. I’d be happy to have your input, Daisuke Aurora.” He glanced up at the sign over the door. “Places like this are an eyesore, aren’t they? All those panting animals who call themselves men, like they’re any better than beasts.”

Daisuke’s answering smile was more of a grimace than anything else, tight with barely reigned-in irritation. “Well,” he said. “Why don’t we discuss this over a few drinks, then?”

Clair swept back, just enough for Daisuke to slide out from between him and the wall. He let the grenade drop back out of sight in his pocket, stepping up till he was almost shoulder-to-shoulder with Daisuke. “Lead the way, then,” he purred.

+++

Thankfully no one immediately spotted them when they slipped back into the club; a new set of girls had rotated onto the stage, wrapped in bits of silk and lace that left very little to the imagination. Judging from the noises of the crowd, they were certainly appreciative. Clair glanced briefly at them before looking away, dimissing them with a curl of his lip. Daisuke followed close behind, keeping a close eye on the younger man as he made a beeline for the back of the club. He paused by one table, swiping his finger across the top and then staring at the fingertip; there was almost no way he could see anything in the dimness, but his nose curled in disgust anyway.

“Filthy,” he said. He flicked his wrist and moved on, repeating the process three times before settling on a table in a dark corner. The last one he didn’t bother testing, hooked one of the chairs out of the way and hitched himself up onto the table top, leaning back on his hands and kicking his legs idly. He looked up at Daisuke from under lowered lashes, teeth flashing white and pressing to his lipring again. “I’m thirsty. Get me something.”

Daisuke raised an eyebrow. “Flat broke,” he said. “You’ll just have to get your own.”

“Hmmmmm.” Clair tipped his head. Colored lights cut in sharp angles across his face. “Boring.”

He shrugged. “You were the one who wanted to come inside,” he said. “Not my fault if it’s not to your tastes.”

Clair leaned in the other direction. For a moment it looked like he might say something, and then he surged to his feet, striding forward. Daisuke automatically moved back before they could actually collide, his hands in his pockets; Clair matched him step for step, eyes glittering.

“I don’t like how you look at me,” he murmured, his voice still clear even through the bass beat of the music. “You’re always looking down on me, aren’t you? Always …” He raised a hand, finger pointing but never quite touching Daisuke’s chest. “Like you at the Safety Management Agency are so much higher than me, like you’ve got the right to look down on me …” He looked up through his lashes, baring his teeth, not even pretending to be a smile. “It makes me sick.”

Daisuke turned into a looping half-circle, through some miracle avoiding the tables and chairs in the way. Clair followed. “Just part of the job,” he said easily. “Wouldn’t be very good at preventing crimes if we didn’t keep an eye on you Leonellis.”

“There,” Clair hissed. His eyes flared open wider for a moment, and he giggled, the sound spilling out like he couldn’t quite stop it. “That’s the sort of attitude I hate.” He cocked his head to one side, the movement flowing. Daisuke sidestepped his next advance, the two of them pacing around a table for a few rounds before Clair abruptly switched directions, moving forward and driving him back again. “You piss me off, Daisuke Aurora.” His eyes opened wide; his arm flashed, and a moment later he had the muzzle of his gun pressed flat to Daisuke’s chest. “I wonder what sort of mark you’d make.”

“A mess, at least,” Daisuke said blandly. He never looked away from the gleam in Clair’s eyes. “It’d be a pain to clean up.”

“Ah.” Clair laughed again. His head dropped forward. “Ahhhhh, is that so? Is that so.” He jabbed at Daisuke again with the gun, pushing him back a few more steps until his shoulders hit the wall. “But your eyes would stay the same, wouldn’t they? Like you’re any better.” He glanced up through his bangs, and the smile had been wiped away from his face. A heartbeat later, his open palm slammed into the wall hard beside Daisuke’s head — a hairsbreadth from touching, but without actual contact. Daisuke didn’t flinch. “What gives you the right, hm?”

Daisuke shrugged, a lazy smile flickering across his face. “Nothing,” he said. “I just don’t like you.”

The corner of Clair’s mouth twitched. His arm flashed up. Daisuke twisted away from the wall and caught the blow with his arm. A moment later he pivoted to dodge an elbow to the ribs, ducking into a sweeping kick.

They broke apart, circling again. Daisuke tucked his hands back into his pockets. Clair reholstered his gun.

“It’s pathetic, don’t you think?” Clair hissed. “You run around, playing cops and robbers with your little machine, like you’re something actually important. Half the time, you can’t even do it right. You’re supposed to prevent crimes, right?” He leaned in suddenly, so close their faces were almost touching. “And yet, here you are, unable to do a damn thing.” He lifted a single finger, trailing it up the side of Daisuke’s neck and the side of his face, close enough to be a ticklish presence. “What good are you, Daisuke Aurora?”

“A man is someone who does things his own way,” said Daisuke. He leaned his head away from Clair’s touch, smirking. “And doesn’t need to explain himself to anyone.”

“I see.” Clair’s eyes widened. “Do you dance, Daisuke?”

“–Huh?” Daisuke stopped, lifting an eyebrow. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

Clair giggled and surged forward. And Daisuke tensed, though nothing in Clair’s movement telegraphed any sort of hostility, just–

A long-fingered hand fisted into his hair and dragged him down an abrupt distance that ended with Clair Leonelli’s teeth sinking hard into his lower lip.

He tasted blood and the colder metal of the lipring, his startled noise swallowed before it was more than gasp in his throat. Instinctively he jerked back, and his hip collided hard into an empty chair; a moment later another hand settled at the small of his back and hauled him back forward. His fingers closed around a thin wrist and clenched.

Clair’s tongue swiped the cut on his lip in a fleeting bright spark of pain. He could feel the outline of that too-wide smile pressed to his mouth. It’d be easy enough to break his hold — either of them — but somewhere in the decision, he found himself manuvered until his back hit the wall again.

“Here’s a secret,” Clair whispered, lips moving against his own. His laugh rattled dryly in his throat. “I love dancing. I’m good at it. Very, very–” His fingers tightened in Daisuke’s hair, jerking it back; in the dim light, his blood on Clair’s mouth was a damp dark smear. Pale eyes opened wide and glittering. “–Very good. You see.”

Daisuke licked his own cut lip. “You really do have crappy habits,” he said. He grasped Clair’s wrist again and pulled, twisting at the same time until he’d pulled Clair’s one arm up, their legs shifted into a parody of a dancer’s pose. Clair’s eyes opened wider as Daisuke dipped him over backwards, lips peeling back from his teeth in a sudden fierce grimace. “If we dance, we do it on my terms.”

“Is what part of being a ‘man’?” Clair hissed; it trailed into a rising giggle. “Getting to call the shots?”

“It’s part of being practical,” Daisuke said, and let go a moment before Clair’s knee came up, aimed for his groin. “I like going home with all pieces intact.” He circled again, keeping pace with Clair’s loose easy movements, weaving through the empty chairs and abandoned tables with careful grace. They stopped on opposite sides of a table, staring at each other unblinking. “Besides, a place like this isn’t my ideal. We’ll just have to dance another night.”

“Hmmm,” Clair said. His eyes narrowed, but he sighed and turned his head. “How boring.”

“Sorry for being boring, then,” Daisuke said, with absolute insincerity. “I like living the way I do.” He started to turn away, then paused at the jab of a gun in the small of his back; he hadn’t even heard Clair move, despite the chairs that should have been in his way.

“I don’t like boring people,” Clair said, eyes wide. He nibbled his lower lip. “They make me angry.”

“The way I see it,” Daisuke said, “lots of things make you angry.”

The gun jabbed hard into his back again, then was gone; a moment later, Clair was crowded close behind him — again, only just a hairsbreadth from touching. He was very warm. When he leaned up, his breath was hot and damp on Daisuke’s ear.

“Better make it up to me then,” he whispered. “Careful, my patience only lasts so long.”

Teeth nipped sharply at Daisuke’s earlobe — almost certainly hard enough to draw blood — and then Clair pulled away, the warmth of him retreating; Daisuke waited for a full minute before he turned. The narrow row of chairs and tables behind him was empty, and the back door hung open. He touched his tongue to the cut on his lip, this time wincing at the sting, and rubbed the back of his neck. Warmth lingered at his hip, where Clair’s hand had rested.

“Sheesh,” he sighed. “Too rich for my blood.”

He glanced back at the stage. A new set of girls were gyrating on the stage, one leaning down so far that her breasts were pressed into an ecstatic customer’s face. With another sigh, he shook his head and headed out the back door. Outside, the night was damp and full of the familiar scent of exhaust and ozone; there was no sign of person or car down either end of the alley. Daisuke tucked his hands into his pockets and slouched his way to the alley mouth and looked up. The Company Vita building was half-obscured by others, a solid looming shape rising on the Judoh skyline.

If he wanted, he thought, he could follow the road past the casino, straight into the Vita building; the guards certainly wouldn’t stop him. He flexed his fingers and remembered how easily Clair had bent backwards, as though his spine had the same fluid flexibility of a cat. He rolled his tongue against the cut in his lip one more time.

No, he thought. Not tonight, not yet; a dance with Clair Leonelli would be a lot more complicated than he had the time to navigate, and too compromising for his current interests. He shifted, feeling the subtle weight of the silver bullet around his neck — light enough that he could sometimes forget it was even there, but never gone, always hovering there just at the corner of thought and memory.

Shrugging to himself, he turned away and started walking.

+++

“Have fun?” Giovanni asked. His eyes were hidden behind his glasses, but one eyebrow angled up, and his tone was wry.

Clair shrugged, crossing his arms behind his head and his legs at the knees, kicking idly at the back of the driver’s seat with one foot. “I danced,” he said.

“Any good?”

Clair made an eloquent noise of disgust, turning his face to the window. “He had no manners at all,” he said.

“But not boring?” asked Mitchell, grinning into the rearview mirror.

“Hmm.” Clair’s nose wrinkled. “… It was annoying,” he said at last, then turned deliberately to the window, cutting off the rest of the conversation. Mitchell met Giovanni’s eyes in the mirror and shrugged.

They drove the rest of the way in silence.

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she’ll one day be queen

“Cousin! Dear cousin, you mustn’t fly so–”

Mercedes made no sound other than a rustle of skirts when she bounced off the palace wall and went tumbling backwards in the air, her wings fluttering furiously in an attempt to keep her balance. Melvin rolled his eyes heavenward for a moment, then rushed after her, managing somehow to catch her before she actually hit the ground. Continue reading

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lemon party

Ingway/Mercedes (Odin Sphere)

Ingway remembered Queen Elfaria, dimly: a tall statuesque woman, heavy at the breasts and hips, with lovely grave eyes and an elegant hand. She’d handled her crossbow with careless ease, but there had been no calluses upon her palm that he could feel when he pressed Titrel into her grasp. He remembered how her expression had never changed though she must have been surprised, only touched a finger to her full lower lip and thanked him gravely. There were traces of that ethereal beauty in her daughter’s face, but Queen Mercedes was still soft with youth, her cheeks pink as her mouth and her eyes wide and maybe a little frightened.

She was so very young; Ingway couldn’t remember ever being quite so young. He thought perhaps he’d never been: because he could remember his grandfather’s bared teeth as he watched his own hands on his daughter’s throat, and he could remember the speculative gleam in the old man’s eyes as he watched his granddaughter dance, and the bruises Velvet would never explain. He’d known all these things from childhood as a litany forever drilled into him, and he could not unlearn that, not even for the sake of this tiny soul in his arms. Continue reading

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Follow If You May

You learned his scent long ago: part of you is still human and tries to recognize by sight, but it has almost become instinct now, to identify by smells. It takes effort, at times, to filter out a single person from the cacophony that makes up Judoh in sight-sound-smell, but you’ve learned to take pride in that. It’s a sign of your mastery over the beast within you; it’s proof that you’re still human enough.

Still, you’ve learned their scents, the both of them. Vampire’s men were thorough when their master was not, and they gave you a scrap of cloth torn from Daisuke Aurora’s coat: heat-laced ozone and metal from the machine (from J), dust and sweat and cheap soap. In many ways it’s no different from the thousands of others who live in and below Judoh, but. Continue reading

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The Story of the Cat and the Crane

Once upon a time (so the story goes), a cat lived east of the sun and west of the moon.

He was not the largest of cats, nor the most powerful or even the bravest, but he was very clever, and so he survived in the part of the world that always remains in flux, where one day is high summer and the next is vibrant spring and the day after is the dead of winter.

Sometimes he pretended to be a man, and made potions and glass trinkets to sell to the tiny villages that lived in the shadow of the Sun-Queen’s palace. One particular village had only animals pretending to be people, and there the cat decided to stay, at least until the wind changed and he found something better.

One day in the summer, as he was drying out the straw mats he used for his work, someone came to his door and knocked.

“Cat!” cried his visitor. “Oh Cat, are you in?” Continue reading

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